Logo: The Term Progress in Different Cultures
Logos: GIZ, Goethe-Institut

The Term Progress in Different Cultures

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Unity in diversity

At the conference, which was held on 15 and 16 October 2004 at the Gödelitz Estate near Dresden, dialogue concentrated on four key aspects of the concept of progress: history, technical development, the future of working society and societal change in the wake of reunification. In the four discussion groups on the issues of technology, work, culture, and innovation and reform, the diversity of existing views emerged, as did agreement on fundamental principles.

The participants came from various parts of society (industry, the academic community, civil society), different scientific disciplines (maths, philosophy, physics, political sciences, economics, sociology, theology, environmental sciences), different generations (from early 20s to over 60s) and from the former East and West Germanies.

'Progress in terms of culture and the media in Germany does not mean the same in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich as it does in Dinslaken, Quedlingburg or Markdorf.'
Lutz Engelke, founder and managing director of Triad Berlin Projektgesellschaft mbH

Lines of discussion

The focus of the Progress Conference in Germany was on the individual, because it is the individual who can affect his or her environment and who is thus responsible for progress. If individuals are to be enabled to act, an enabling environment must be put in place, including security and human rights as well as the opportunity to work productively in a worthwhile manner. Education and new ways of recognising the value of work are tools that future generations will need if they are to shape progress.

The vision of sustainable development was the top priority for all participants. Developments pointing in any one extreme direction, whether in economic, political or social terms, can be halted and neutralised with concepts geared to the vision of sustainable development. This makes possible social and cultural balance and allows us to take account of both environmental and economic aspects.

'There can only be progress if the technologies that make possible progress in the sense of greater sustainability are actually used, providing for high market penetration.'
Traute Fiedler, GRÜNE LIGA member, Berlin

Political setting

The framework for the Progress Conference in Germany was set by the apparently endless debates on reform, the threatened job losses at Opel, Karstadt and other major companies, the introduction of new unemployment benefit regulations and the whole debate about executives' pay. The conference was held shortly after the radical right-wing NPD party won seats in the state parliament in Saxony, making the chosen location close to Dresden particularly significant. The debate on migration to Germany, and the European integration process were also facets of the political setting in which the discussion of the concept of progress in Germany took place.


What conditions must be met to pave the way for innovation and reform in Germany? Conference participants agreed that progress must be geared to the vision of sustainable development, which aims to balance economic, social and cultural factors. The social market economy, based on the principle of balancing different needs, is a good way to counterbalance and mitigate enthusiasm for neo-liberal reforms. On the basis of the rule of law it combines the laws of the market with social equity and environmental sustainability.

Progress always means something new. Without this innovative force the future is impossible. At the same time, people are often afraid of anything new, which makes them less willing to take risks. The economic and political environment in Germany must then allow people to act creatively and take risks while soothing their fears and uncertainties in the face of change. Achieving this balance is the most important challenge involved in making progress innovative and sustainable.

'Our future is to move, not to cling to one point.'
Ulf Merbold, astronaut

Obstacles to progress

Germany lacks optimism and the willingness to take risks. This was the consensus of all conference participants. Both represent an obstacle to progress, because innovations in science and technology are only possible in a free and inspiring environment. If new scientific and technological findings are to be applied, they must also be rendered more transparent and communicated better. In this context, Germany needs a participatory dialogue that involves not only experts, but all people. For this reason some participants advocated that progress should begin on a small scale at regional level. If there is no personal link, there is a danger that progress will take place at an elevated level benefiting only a few privileged individuals.

The cultural division between East and West Germany too was seen to be an obstacle to progress in Germany. The young generation from the East in particular needs to feel that German society accepts them as equals and that they are treated justly, not that they are being denied a future.

Future prospects

In technological terms, the greatest challenge facing humankind is to explore the planet Mars, declared the astronaut Ulf Merbold, to expand the horizons of humankind. To ensure at the same time that we meet our ethical responsibility of leaving the Earth fit for future generations, participants called for technological progress in line with the vision of sustainable development.

'Progress always means risk. Genuine progress does not come about through new knowledge or a new idea, but through innovation, which translates the idea into practice. Progress means thinking optimistically about the future.'
Klaus Heinzelbecker, Strategy Division, BASF Ludwigshafen

Globalisation offers new opportunities to make gainful employment innovative and to move away from the concept of 'labour' originally coined during the period of industrialisation. The core of a new understanding of labour and work must be to measure the benefits thereof not in terms of financial profit, but in terms of benefits for society as a whole. On this basis it could be possible to combine family and working life in a way that is sustainable. A more flexible attitude to periods of non-gainful employment would also be progressive. Social welfare systems should be uncoupled from gainful employment and not be restricted to state measures, but be based on social solidarity.
Peace in Europe is another aspect of progress. The process of European integration is a unique opportunity to break out of national ways of thinking and to usher in new ways of thinking in which a united Europe is at the forefront.

Progress? Europe!
Franziska Donner, formerly director of the GIZ Office, Berlin


  • Prof. Jochen Brüning
    Born 1947 in Bad Wildungen
    Professor of Mathematics at the Humboldt University, Berlin, and Director of the Hermann von Helmholtz Center for Literary and Cultural Research, an interdisciplinary centre of the Humboldt University, Berlin, with project-based work
  • Klaus Burmeister
    Born 1954
    Graduate in political sciences, futurologist
  • Dominique Döttling
    Born 1967 in Traben-Trarbach
    Management consultant
  • Lutz Engelke
    Founder and managing director of Triad Berlin Projektgesellschaft mbH
  • Traute Fiedler
    GRÜNE LIGA member
  • Dr Klaus Heinzelbecker
    Strategy Division, BASF Ludwigshafen (Germany)
  • Paula Marie Hildebrandt
    Born 1976 in Berlin
    GIZ project manager in the Centre for Cooperation with the Private Sector, in Berlin and representative of the interdisciplinary network 3plusX
  • Katrin Hünemörder
    Born 1980 in Dresden
    Spokeswoman of the board of European Youth Press and organiser of the school newspaper 'politikorange', 'Ortschritt' issue
  • Dr Hans Joachim Kujath
    Born 1942 in Berlin
    Urban planner and regional sociologist
  • Prof. Martin Kutscha
    Born 1948 in Bremen
    Professor at the (now) Berlin School of Economics and Law (in 2004 Fachhochschule für Verwaltung und Rechtspflege) Berlin
  • Ulf Merbold
    Born 1941 in Greiz
  • Bidjan Tobias Nashat
    Born 1979 in Berlin
    Representative of the Network of the Academic Foundation of the German People; f.ize; student of political sciences in Berlin
  • Prof. Hildegard Maria Nickel
    Born 1948 in Berlin
    Professor of Sociology at Humboldt University, Berlin, specialist area women/transition
  • Dr Edelbert Richter
    Born 1943 in Chemnitz
  • Dr. Olaf Struck
    Born 1964 in Bremen
    Sociologist whose research and teaching focuses on labour and organisational sociology, life course research, social structure and social policy, sociological theory